By Richard O. Martin
|"October's child is born for woe,
And life's vicissitudes must know;
But lay an Opal on her breast and
Hope will lull those fears to rest."
I've always been mystified how a stone as full of life and beauty as precious opal could be regarded as bad luck. The only bad luck associated with opal is not being lucky enough to own a fine one, and that's what I've been telling my happy opal customers for nearly three decades now.
Yet a gem that flashes with its own “fires” from deep within was probably destined to be considered “magical” in less scientific times. It’s easy to imagine how it came to be thought to have “powers” and became associated with various popular superstitions in much the same way as black cats and mirrors.
Sir Walter Scott, who originated the historical novel form and authored the classic "Waverly" novels and "Ivanhoe," wrote the 1829 popular book "Anne of Geierstein." In it an opal belonging to the grandmother of the heroine played a major and dramatic role in her tragic death.
Scott’s novel has long been blamed for starting the opal-as-bad-luck myth amongst the impressionable Victorians (who really are responsible for tainting the reputation of garnet, but that’s another tale; see Garnet: It Gets No Respect).
It's important to remember that Scott, who did careful research, based much of his tale on material from Goethe and earlier writers. His story is set in 1474 and it's clear that Scott took the opal superstition from an earlier time. The "bad luck "myth originated in the Middle Ages.
After years of research I think I’ve found the truth, or a major part of it. Let's begin with Seigneur Marbodus, Bishop of Rennes in Normandy, who wrote "Lapidarium" about 1075. In it he claimed that opal conferred invisibility on the wearer, who could then steal by daylight without risking being exposed to the dangerous dews of night, according to then-current beliefs.
That was not a ringing endorsement of opal-wearers, especially coming from someone as powerful as a medieval bishop!
Before Marbodus designated opal the Talisman of Thieves, only good things had been written about it. But Marbodus was probably thinking of his own safety because Rennes is in Normandy which was then the dukedom of Robert the Devil, father of William the Conquerer.
Robert was a bad guy and he blamed his evil nature on his mother. The story went that, bribed with opal jewelry, she was said to have given herself to the Prince of Darkness himself and so produced Robert, the heir to the throne. Robert was not happy with his stormy nature and Marbodus probably felt it was politically correct to say bad things about opal given his powerful patron's beliefs.
Then, from 1347 to 1350 the Black Death ravaged Europe. It has been documented that in Venice during the Plague, someone made the fanciful observation that opals worn by plague victims were brilliant up to the point of death. Afterward they were believed to fade and became lifeless like their owners. During and after the Plague Italian jewelers who earlier had considered opal a favored gem, considered it a badge of dread. It's likely that the opal "bad luck" in Scott's novel was based on these two frightening myths.
Unfortunately Marbodus's slander has endured for the better part of a thousand years. It is constantly given new twists along the way by the imaginative. While there are as many stories about opal bringing good luck in place of bad, somehow they’re not popular.
One is told about the man who ran the Curio Shop and Opal Store in Sydney, Australia. The owner’s father won 3,500 pounds Sterling with a lottery ticket he bought in 1892 to celebrate a profitable deal in opals. He decided he could now afford a family and fathered a son who later went into the opal business. The son went on to success in opals and later won at least 7 major lottery prizes. He always carried an opal for luck. There are many more such “lucky” opal tales.
Copyright © 2006 by Richard O. Martin